A senior executive I’ve coached for the last two years recently asked me how she can drive employee engagement in her organization. This has been a focus for many leaders during the Great Resignation as employees have continued to feel a lack of fulfillment and purpose in the work they do. Quiet quitting and other counterproductive work behaviors have become rampant due to a lack of commitment by senior executives to invest the time, effort, and energy needed to develop the talents and capabilities of their people.
To develop high levels of employee engagement and organizational commitment, leaders must practice Relational Intelligence. This is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. Relationally intelligent leaders practice five critical skills to unlock the potential of their employees. They establish rapport, which is the ability to use ENERGY to create a positive initial connection with their team members. They understand others, which is the ability to be INTENTIONAL in putting in the time and effort needed to get to know their people on a deep level. They embrace individual differences, which is the ability to be AUTHENTIC in acknowledging and accepting that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. They develop trust, which is the ability to be VULNERABLE and risk being exposed to the actions and behaviors of others. And most importantly, they cultivate influence, which is the ability to have a positive and meaningful IMPACT on the growth and development of their employees.
Cultivating Influence is one of the most powerful ways to drive employee engagement in your organization. This relational intelligent skill is about putting people and culture first before focusing on performance, productivity, and driving results. It is about helping your employees become the best versions of themselves. It is NOT about manipulation, controlling others, or top-down authority. Developing strong relationships with your people, which enables you to understand how to support their professional development, is one of the best ways to engage your workforce. You cannot lead a thriving and financially profitable organization if your people feel you are not invested in their growth.
How do you cultivate influence with your team members? What principles and practices must you put in place to create the conditions in which employees are committed and loyal to your organization? Here are the three ways relationally intelligent leaders drive employee engagement:
1. Become Effective at Coaching Your People: According to many leadership advisors, coaching is about unlocking an employee’s full potential to maximize their performance. It’s helping your people learn rather than just telling them what to do. Employees often find it more motivating to bring their knowledge and expertise to a business problem rather than being told what to do. Coaching your employees is a skill that needs to be learned and refined over time. It cannot be something you do once a year during an annual performance review. But when you think about it, how can you be successful in coaching your employees?
A recent study conducted by researchers at the EDHEC Business School in France found that when many leaders are asked to coach, they demonstrate a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provide their employees with direction to solve a problem. The researchers also found that there are nine leadership skills that managers need to learn and put into practice to be effective at coaching. These skills include: (1) active listening, (2) asking questions, (3) giving regular feedback, (4) assisting with goal setting, (5) showing empathy and compassion, (6) letting employees arrive at a solution on their own, (7) recognizing strengths and reinforcing positive behaviors, (8) providing structure and a conducive environment for problem solving, and (9) encouraging a solution-focused approach.
What can we learn from this research? First, any approach to coaching should start by clearly defining what it is and how it differs from other types of leader behaviors. This shift in mindset must take place to lay the foundation for training to give your leaders a clear set of expectations on what effective coaching looks like. Second, it is important to let your leaders practice coaching in a safe environment before letting them work with their people. Investing in some form of training dramatically increases the likelihood that they will be successful in coaching their employees. Third, receiving feedback from leadership advisors or executive coaches accelerates a leader’s ability to be an effective coach. Experts in coaching can provide feedback on how well the coaching skills can be applied and if any opportunities are missed.
2. Provide Consistent Developmental Feedback: Over the years, I’ve asked hundreds of senior executives what skills they believe are essential for leaders. The ability to give constructive developmental feedback comes up frequently. Giving development feedback is different than giving “tough feedback.” Just this phrase alone connotes bad news, like when you must tell a direct report they’ve failed to achieve a specific goal or objective. When Relational Intelligence has been practiced on a consistent basis, and trust has been developed between a manager and their direct report, providing constructive developmental feedback becomes part of the process to cultivate influence. The difference between giving “tough feedback” and constructive developmental feedback is the intention to help employees grow, rather than showing them where they have made mistakes. Great feedback motivates employees. Take the time to prepare for a feedback conversation, reflect on what you hope to achieve, and on the impact you would like to have on your employee.
Openness and receptivity on the part of the feedback provider is also essential to cultivating influence. It accelerates the process to facilitate positive change and improvements. If you start off a feedback conversation feeling uncomfortable and guarded, your employee will match your energy, and both of you will leave the conversation frustrated. Solicit your employee’s input and perspective during the feedback discussion. Invite them into the problem solving and critical thinking process. You can ask questions like: What ideas do you have? Does this resonate with you? What are your thoughts? What are you taking away from this conversation? What steps will you take, by when, and how will I know? What role can I play in helping you be successful? Giving consistent developmental feedback that sparks growth is a critical skill for any leader to master. When done correctly, it is the difference between an employee who contributes powerfully and positively to your organization and one who feels diminished by the organization and contributes far less. Just one conversation can leave an employee feeling inspired or shut them down. Relationally intelligent leaders see the raw talent for brilliance in every employee and create the conditions to let it shine.
3. Serve Your People: The servant leadership style is based on the idea that senior executives prioritize serving the greater good. Leaders with this style serve their people, teams, and organizations first. They promote the development of employees, empower others, and assure the well-being of the people around them. They are serving instead of commanding, showing humility instead of brandishing authority, and always looking to enhance the development of their employees in ways that unlock potential, creativity, and a sense of purpose. Servant leaders do more than just listen to their people. They encourage them to develop and grow.
The relational intelligence skill of developing trust, which is the ability to be vulnerable and risk being exposed to the actions and behaviors of others, is both a defining characteristic and outcome of servant leadership. These types of leaders have a serve-first mentality, but they also demonstrate other management behaviors such as competence, character, and commitment. Competence means that the leader has a successful track record of achieving results. Character means that results and consequences are achieved with high integrity and ethics. And commitment means that the leader has consistently honored the agreements they make to others. Practicing servant leadership generates trust in your employees. It is one of the major factors in driving high levels of employee engagement from your people.
If you want to effectively serve others, there are eight principles you must put into practice: (1) active listening – it’s important to listen to your employees first before providing direction; (2) empathy – you have to take time to understand your people before you can help them develop and grow; (3) self-awareness – you must recognize your own strengths and opportunities before you can surround yourself with team members that complement your skills; (4) conceptualization – you must be able to use big-picture thinking. With this, you can conceptualize plans for others to pursue; (5) foresight – is about using what you and your team learn to improve the future; (6) commitment to the growth of your people – you need to allocate time and resources to help your employees grow. Providing team members with stretch assignments, training opportunities, and leadership development experiences are just some of the examples you can use; (7) stewardship – is about leading by example so your people can do what you do, not just do what you say; and most importantly, (8) building community – servant leadership requires building strong, long-lasting relationships with your employees. As a result, team members learn to trust you, and one another, to become more productive and proficient in their performance.
Employee engagement is not hard to develop in your organization. However, it does require time, intentionality, and a commitment to your people. You must think about the strategic implications for your business if you make a concerted effort to invest in your talent. This does not happen overnight. You cannot be transactional with your employees. This is one of the fastest ways to lose followership. Become effective at coaching your team members. Create a feedback-first culture where you are consistent in providing developmental guidance and support. Practice servant leadership. Put the needs of your employees before your own.
Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D., is the Visionary Founder & Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational development. He is the author of the book Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships. It is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and everywhere books are sold. Follow Dr. Bandelli on Instagram at @adambandelli to learn more. You can also visit the firm’s website at www.bandelliandassociates.com for information on other leadership topics and to learn about their consulting services.